Saturday, March 30, 2013

Stay Inside the Circle

A professor of mine once told me to actively work inside the system. During this class, we were discussing the pervasive systems of American society – the institutions that infiltrate our everyday lives. Education, medicine, law, and government are constantly imprinting, nurturing and socializing us. We discussed how the inherent power of these systems enables the regulation of our lives. This same power is the site of the manifestation of oppression, discrimination, and inequality.

As my professor shared this with us, some questioned the validity of the statement while other offered blank stares, hands raised. But…. isn’t that obvious? I mean, where else could anyone possibly exist? It’s not as if we could escape these systems to an alternate reality where education, law, medicine, or government have no influence. Or a place where oppression, discrimination, and inequality don’t exist. Right?

She went on to give a detailed explanation of what she meant. Walking to the board, she grabbed a piece of chalk, and began to draw a large circle on the board. She explained that inside the circle represented the systems, and proceeded to ask where we believed we existed in relation to this. The answer to this question, for my class, ignited many questions and much debate.

Given what I know about these systems, it was particularly hard for me to visualize myself as an active individual, working alongside the production of discrimination, racism, misogyny, inequality, oppression… the list goes on.

I suppose the first assumption made is that everyone recognizes that these injustices exist, which is sadly not true. Regardless, there are ample opportunities to understand the realities I refer to here. Whether through personal experience or the experiences of others, they are very real. You don’t have to look hard. Sometimes you don’t even have to look, you just have to be.

This is the reality…

As a woman entering the workforce I will at best, make 82% of that earned by my male counterparts2. In my lifetime, I have a 1 in 6 chance of being a victim of sexual assault – though the notion of victim blaming is just as likely5. Meeting someone who supports marriage for all is sadly of equal chance as meeting someone who does not3. Almost half of hate crimes committed in the United States stem from racial bias, while a fifth stem from sexual orientation bias – that is, the ones that are reported1. Abortion is a common and safe practice, but many women bare the social stigma accompanying the right to choose, despite its legality.

In the United States Congress, 20 of the 100 Senators and 77 of 435 Representatives are female. Where female representation lacks, sexual minorities are merely nonexistent. And if you think the government is shocking, only about 3% of CEOs for Fortune 500 companies are women4.

Calling a woman a slut on syndicated talk radio is acceptable and applauded by many. “Legitimate rape” isn’t a question from an eighth grader in sex education class, but rather an argument from an (arguably) educated elected official. And these are only the sentiments that happen to be said publicly.

Sadly, the everyday experience does not lend concrete statistics. Despite this, experience tells us that sexual harassment is extensive, racial profiling does occur, and discriminatory slurs are still used today… regularly.

I do not claim that the statements above represent a universalized experience. Nor do I claim that the statements above examine all forms of discrimination and oppression that are pervasive in American society today. What I do claim, though, is that in just this small representation it is clear why some students, including myself, would struggle to claim associations to the systems that perpetuate discriminatory, oppressive ideologies. 

So, here was this large circle on the board and a classroom full of students gazing in a contemplative stare. This class taught critical thinking and promoted further examination of the world. So she continued her explanation by saying that in acknowledging these realities, it seems as though we should refute the system in totality.

She began to draw small circles outside the larger one. Now, stick with the analogy here…

If we refuse to work within the large circle, we end up forming our own circles outside of this one. In our small circles, we may be surrounded by likeminded people and enjoy the company of those who have similar life experiences. We may even begin to be empathetic towards those of other smaller circles as well. But (and a very large one at that), how can we ever expect to change the shape of the larger circle if we never work with it.

As I said at the beginning of this endeavor, where could we possibly exist if not within the system? Our small circles are not exempt from oppression, discrimination, or inequality. In choosing to be outside the circle, we are choosing to ignore the larger one. That does not mean, though, that the power of the large circle does not infiltrate the lives of those in the smaller circles.

Being active within the system is how you change the shape of the large circle – that’s how you change the system.

I acknowledge that this is by no means a simple fix, or that this occurs with ease. This is infinitely more complicated than circles on a chalkboard. In this complex reality, something is brought to the circle that was not there before – you.

Taking chances in the workplace, advocating to stop victim blaming, supporting same-sex marriage, refuting discriminatory slurs, running for political office, or telling Todd Akin to take a sexual education class… here you are shaking up the circle in very real, proactive ways. The next thing you know you’re the new CEO, sexual assault occurs less frequently, same-sex marriage is legal, there are more women in political office, and Todd Akin is out of a job. The circle has changed its shape.

This is by far the most influential lesson I’ve learned in my collegiate years. This is so simple, somewhat obvious, but something that I will carry with me for a lifetime.

Tori Whitworth, NOW Intern 


1. U.S. Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI Releases 2011 Hate Crime Statistics. Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI National Press Office, 10 Dec. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <>.

2. United States. U.S. Department of Labor. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2011. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Oct. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <>.

3. Silver, Nate. "How Opinion on Same-Sex Marriage Is Changing, and What It Means." New York Times. The New York Times Company, 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <>.

4. Petrecca, Laura. "Number of Female 'Fortune' 500 CEOs at Record High." USA Today. Gannett Co., Inc., 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <>.

5. Tjaden, Patricia, and Nancy Thoennes. Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey. Rep. National Institute of Justice Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1998. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <>.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It's Not An Easy Choice

With women’s history month in our midst, the 40th commemoration of Roe v. Wade in our not so distant past, and the skepticism surrounding the future of women’s reproductive freedoms in Michigan – the second annual It’s Not An Easy Choice Event comes at a relevant and necessary time.

Subtitled “Herstory: Dispelling the negative stigma of abortion,” the program will aim to depict multiple perspectives – medical, activist, as well as personal, to combat the harmful attitudes surrounding abortion. In doing so, the program hopes to shed light on the realities of abortion at a time when reproductive freedoms, specifically in Michigan, are being significantly threatened.

In December of 2012, Michigan legislators passed one of the most extreme anti-abortion bills in decades: HB5711. The bill requires doctors in abortion clinics to screen patients for coercion, bans the use of telemedicine in the first trimester, and regulates the disposal of fetal remains post-abortion.

The good news and well, bad news, is that HB5711 is a significantly watered-down version of the bill originally posed to Congress. An activist presence lobbying against the bill, protests outside the Capitol, as well as a performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues attracting upwards of 3,000 people to the Capitol steps identified an intense oppositional presence to the bill that legislators could no longer ignore. And how can we forget former Representative Lisa Brown and her “vagina” reference when discussing women’s health. How dare she!

It is clear that the issues of women, or shall I say the issues of women being discussed by predominantly men, are prevalent in politics today. I encourage you to join the conversation and make the issues of women – for women and by women. “It’s Not An Easy Choice” is an opportunity to do just this. By emphasizing the personal, abortion and reproductive freedoms are brought out of the abstract and back down the Earth.

The event will take place Thursday, March 21 at 7 pm at the Oakland Center of Oakland University, Lake Superior Room A.

The program will include keynote speakers Renee Chelian, CEO of Northland Family Planning Clinics, Lindsay Maas, field organizer for Planned Parenthood, as well as Grace Wojcik, Center Coordinator of Gender and Sexuality Center of Oakland University.

The event is free and light snacks and refreshments will be provided. Donations are welcome. Other participating organizations include ACLU,, and the Scotsdale Women's Center.

Tori Whitworth, NOW Intern


Baker, K. (December, 2012 14). Michigan house sneakily passed the country’s most extreme anti-abortion bill early this morning. Retrieved from abortion-bill-early-this-morning

Bassett, L. (December, 2012 28). Michigan abortion law signed by gov. rick snyder. Retrieved from

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act

On March 7, just a day before International Women’s Day, President Obama signed a bi-partisan bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The bill was passed through the Senate with a vote of 78-22 and in the House with a vote of 286-138.

VAWA, initially passed in 1994, was the first form of legislation to formally recognize domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes at the federal level. The legislation also provided resources at the local level, for “community-organized response” – safety shelters and rape crisis hotlines (“The Violence Against Women Act Renewal,” 2013).

Reauthorized in 2000 and again in 2005, VAWA expanded to include dating violence and stalking, while recognizing teenagers and children as victims as well. Necessary discussion was prompted in its expiration in 2011, regarding what was next for VAWA. There was intense recognition of the critical portions of the population that had been overlooked in the past.

As the Senate passed a broad, inclusive version of the bill, they sent it the House of Representatives for a vote. When the House GOP got wind of the inclusive nature of the Senate bill, they drafted a reauthorization bill of their own. Striking down the GOP version with a vote of 166-257, controversial debate peaked with a discussion of what version, if any, the Senate was to pass (Cohen, 2013).

With ardent support from the female population in the most recent election, President Obama understood the significance and the importance in reauthorizing VAWA. The version passed expands to include Native women, LGBT victims, immigrants, college students, and public housing residents (“The Violence Against Women Act Renewal,” 2013.

For Native American women, previous to VAWA, victims of sexual or domestic violence were not able to seek justice because tribal courts were unable to prosecute non-Native offenders. This was true even if the act occurred on Native land. This is especially problematic as an estimated 86% of rape and sexual assault of Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men (U.S. Department of Justice). The reauthorization serves to close this loophole, giving tribal courts a larger role in holding offenders accountable.

The reauthorization also aims to include LGBT individuals under its protection, acknowledging the victimization of these persons. Often facing discrimination when seeking justice or safety from immediate harm, VAWA now prohibits the discrimination of LBGT individuals in instances of sexual or domestic violence. 

For immigrant women, the violence perpetrated against this population is a result of multiple issues. In many instances, women are coerced into staying with their abuser because their citizenship is contingent upon their partner. This is especially prevalent in relationships based on power dynamics, including intimate partners or employer-employee relationships. The reauthorization strengthened multiple provisions, including the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act and continued support of the U visa program, giving victims of sexual or domestic violence temporary legal status and automatic work eligibility for up to four years (“U Visas Hit s Ceiling,” 2012).

For college students, reauthorization requires schools to present prevention plans and provide resources for victims. Additionally, VAWA has implemented a process of recording incidences of dating violence of any sort on collegiate campuses.

Additionally, in the past VAWA has prevented evictions of domestic violence victims from public or assisted housing. In its reauthorization, VAWA expands to all federal subsidized housing and allows for an emergency option for victims moving from one subsidized location to another to escape a harmful situation.

In his Inaugural Address of 2013, President Obama speaks to the realities of equality and the pursuit of happiness, but remains conscious of the struggle ending with complacency.

What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.  For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing…” (Klein, 2013).

As the President points out, just because everyone is entitled to equality and the pursuit of happiness, does not mean that everyone is equal, nor happy.

Just as the Violence Against Women Act exists as legislation, the carrying out of this legislation is not concrete. We are not guaranteed the inclusivity of reauthorization will reach each and every corner of the United States, or that people with empathize with the struggles of women to enact change. What we can guarantee is that we will continue to push the bounds of inclusivity. We will continue to empathize and listen, and hope that others will do the same.

This reauthorization, rolling off the victory for women in the last presidential election, notes the rising influence women have in federal level politics. Now, it is up to the every day women of different races, sexualities, and ethnic backgrounds to continue to use their voting influence and hold not only Congress, but also those carrying out the law, accountable for their actions – to ensure that VAWA makes the difference that it should.

Tori Whitworth, NOW Intern


Cohen, T. (2013, February 28). House passes violence against women act after gop version defeated. Retrieved from

Klein, E. (2013, January 21). Transcript: President obama 2013 inaugural address. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Parker, A. (2013, February 28). House renews violence against women measure. New York Times. Retrieved from

"The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Renewal Passes the House and Senate and Signed into Law." National Network to End Domestic Violence. National Network to End Domestic Violence, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2013. <>.

U visas hit a ceiling. (2012, September 3). New York Times. Retrieved from